How do we choose the books we read? That question intrigues me when I consider the books I most recently chose. I realize my selection approach has varied through the years, but here’s what happened this time.
Deciding to write a short July 4th blog piece, I was reminded of a novel set on that date that I enjoyed reading the summer after my high school graduation prior to starting college in the fall. A quick Internet search for that book (future topic here) resulted in my encountering reference to a 1950's John Steinbeck Jrs. novel, East of Eden. That reference led me to an interesting sounding title, The Other Side of Eden written by Steinbeck’s son, John IV. Ultimately, I was intrigued to read this book when I recalled the considerable controversy, especially in the Steinbecks’ Salinas, California home community, surrounding his family story revelations. One of the son’s less offending observations about his father in the book:
“He was a total bullshit artist on some levels and often that makes a great writer. But if you don’t walk like you talk, it’s not a great character trait.”
The Other Side of Eden by John Steinbeck IV and wife, Nancy, was published in 2001. Steinbeck IV began writing his autobiography to understand the influences shaping his maturation. His life had been adversely affected by alcoholic family members, coupled with probable abuse by them and some of their adult friends. These and other revelations contrasted significantly with his father’s public image, both personal and professional.
John Steinbeck Jr., the father, had been catapulted into the public eye with the 1939 publication of his novel, The Grapes of Wrath, for which he received the Pulitzer Prize in 1940, the same year as the release of the book’s movie version. In 1962, the author was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
His novel’s and film’s storyline is set during the Great Depression, and follows a desperate but hope-filled family along famed U.S. Route 66, then ultimately to California’s Salinas Valley. The black and white film is listed at AMC Filmsite as being among the 100 Greatest Films. Tim Dirks, editor and writer, provides extensive particulars about the film’s plot including:
“The plight of the Joad family is universalized as a microcosm of the thousands of other tenant farmers during the country's time of crisis, who suffered from oppression imposed by the banks and big mechanized farm interests. The dispossessed, migrant family’s departure…[depicted those] who were evicted and uprooted from their "Dust Bowl" farm land, and forced to search westward in the inhospitable Eden of California for jobs and survival with thousands of other migrant workers.”
Recent years’ unexpected devastating U.S. financial difficulties, adversely affecting even middle class individuals and their families, resonate in this film which the critic also notes in this New York Times video of an original 1940 movie trailer. (13 sec. commercial at the beginning.)
Here’s another original 1940 movie trailer showcasing the excitement surrounding Steinbeck’s work:
Grapes of Wrath novel has not been without controversy having been banned by school boards from public schools and libraries beginning in Steinbeck’s Kern County in 1939. On two separate occasions the book was burned in Salinas, location of his parents and his home. The American Library Association reports from 1990 to 2004 Steinbeck to be one of the ten most frequently banned authors. Another of his novels, Of Mice and Men ranked sixth of one hundred books banned in the United States. (Up date: 8/28/12 since link above no longer connects -- refer to current ALA Link.)
Contrarily, many of Steinbeck’s writings have continued to be on numerous required American high school reading lists. His novel Of Mice and Men is a key text used in the United Kingdom for select English Literature examinations. A United States study by the Center for the Learning and Teaching of Literature found the novel to be one of the ten most frequently read books in public high schools as noted at Wikipedia.
Favorites of mine, Steinbeck, Jr. (note he probably dropped the Jr. after his father died) novel and movie, East of Eden, both occur in Steinbeck’s California Salinas Valley. This story set in 1917, just prior to WWI, is generally described as a re-telling of the biblical Cain and Abel story – good versus evil, favored versus unfavored sons. Dirks again provides extensive film specifics including this description:
(8/28/12 Dirks link up date.)
The story “...portrays the relationship between insecure, tortured, neurotic loner Caleb "Cal" Trask (James Dean, his first major role and film) and his dutiful, favored brother Aron (Richard Davalos) - twin sons. Their father is a stern, hardened, devoutly religious, self-righteous man, Adam (Raymond Massey), a lettuce farmer living with his family in Salinas, California.
The characters in this story, particularly, are noted by John Steinbeck IV as being based on more than one generation of his family. Most notably he relates that his perception is the novel’s brothers relationship with each other, and with their father, as being much like that of his and his older brother’s. Both brothers engaged in writing professionally as adults. They sustained erratic contact throughout their lives but Steinbeck IV’s wife, Nancy, is of the impression the brothers’ personal time together generally resulted in her husband experiencing serious setbacks in attempts to overcome his demons, including alcohol and drugs.
Here’s a link to John Steinbeck Encyclopedia which provides a brief summary of older brother,Thomas’(Thom’s,) life and writing accomplishments for anyone interested in further information about him.
John Steinbeck IV served six years as a soldier in the Vietnam War. He was an award-winning journalist for an acclaimed 1969 Vietnam memoir In Touch. He received an Emmy for his work on a 1968 CBS documentary “The World of Charlie Company.” Here’s Part 1 of 5, each part can be viewed on YouTube, about 10 minutes each in length:
The Other Side of Eden, subtitled “Life with John Steinbeck,” (referring to Steinbeck, Jr.) was compiled by John IV’s wife, Nancy, after her husband’s death. Some chapters are attributed to having been written by her husband from his unfinished autobiography and notes; others she designates as having written herself incorporating her own recollections. Nancy writes considerably of her perspective about her husband’s life, sometimes lending a professional view as a former therapist who worked with hard-core delinquents and drug addicts. She augments her husband’s writings extensively with those of her own describing the circumstances of their initial 1960s meeting in Boulder, Colorado, as followers of a popular Buddist leader at the time. This is a revealing startling story about such spiritual groups and their gurus. She and John were both separately seeking life answers as their honestly described activities, significant life events reveal.
Nancy, in describing their relationship, explains the vows they took with which I can singularly identify for reasons quite different than hers, plus I’m not a Buddhist, that to some degree must account for sustaining their marriage. She wrote:
“Buddhist wedding vows are not about ‘til death do us part.’ We promised to extend transcendent generosity, morality, patience, exertion, contemplation, and wisdom and always be a friend to the other.”
The two of them, a few years later, experiencing a spiritual dilemma prompts her to write of a meeting with the Dalai Lama whose clarifying efforts explained:
“It is not good for a person to change from the religion into which they were born. Very difficult to understand the religion of a foreign culture. Much better to stay with the one you know.”
Nancy later writes:
“Now there is evidence that meditation can exacerbate emotional problems, and may even prove dangerous.”
The value in reading this book, for me, does not necessarily center on the celebrities with whom the Steinbeck IV’s lives were intimately enmeshed, such as the “Beat Generation’s” Jack Kerouac, Abbie Hoffman, and William Burroughs. My thoughts were stimulated to think about the influences experienced by some children growing up in a home with an iconic parent, in this case a Pulitzer Prize winner, Nobel Prize winning author with his numerous books becoming award-winning Hollywood star-studded movies. Tragically, the author’s son was exposed to substance abuse and other violations including in his family environment as he matured. Descriptions of this son’s coping mechanisms and evolution through adulthood provides a cautionary tale about the challenges facing individuals who become well-known public figures with the impact their fame and fortune may have on some family members.